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The science

paddington-2020-06-13.jpgWhat I - and I suspect a lot of other people - would love to have right now is an online calculator into which you could put where you were going, the time of day, the length of time you expect to spend there, and the type of activity and get back out a risk estimate of acquiring coronavirus infection given various mitigations. I write this as the UK government announces that the "threat level" is dropping from "4" to "3", which tells me more or less precisely nothing useful.

Throughout the pandemic, the British government has explained every decision by saying it's led by the science. I'm all for following the advice of scientists - particularly, in our present situation, public health experts, virologists, and epidemiologists - but "the science" implies there's a single received monolithic truth even while failing to identify any particular source for it. Which science? Whose research? Based on what evidence? Funded by whom? How does it fit in with what we were told before?

Boris Johnson's government spent much of the early months avoiding answering those questions, which has led, as the biologist Ian Boyd complains to the characterization of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) as "secretive". As the public trusts this government less and less, showing their work has become increasingly important, especially when those results represent a change of plan.

The last four months have seen two major U-turns in "the science" that's governing our current lives, and a third may be in progress: masks, contact tracing apps, and the two-meter rule. Meanwhile, the pieces that are supposed to be in place for reopening - a robust contact tracing system, for example - aren't.

We'll start with masks. Before this thing started, the received wisdom was that masks protected other people from you, but not you from them. This appears to still be the generally accepted case. But tied in with that was the attitude that wearing masks while ill was something only Asians did; Westerners...well, what? Knew better? Were less considerate? Were made of tougher stuff and didn't care if they got sick? In mid-March, Zeynep Tufecki got a certain amount of stick on Twitter for impassioned plea in the New York Times that public health authorities should promote wearing masks and teach people how to do it properly. "Of course masks work," she wrote, "maybe not perfectly, and not all to the same degree, but they provide some protection."

But we had to go on arguing about it back and forth. There is says Snopes, no real consensus on how effective they are. Nonetheless, it seems logical they ought to help, and both WHO and CDC now recommend them while mayors of crowded cities are increasingly requiring them. In this case, there's no obvious opportunity for profiteering and for most people the inconvenience is modest. The worst you can suspect is that the government is recommending them so we'll feel more confident about resuming normal activity.

Then, for the last four months we've been told to stay two meters from everyone else except fellow household members. During the closures, elves - that is, people who took on the risks of going to work - have been busy painting distancing indicators on underground platforms, sidewalks, and park benches and sticking decals to train windows. They've set up hand sanitizer stations in London's stations, and created new bike lanes and pedestrian areas. Now, the daily news includes a drumbeat of pressure on government to reduce that recommended distance to one meter. Is this science or economics? The BBC has found a study that says that standing one meter apart carries ten times the risk of two meters. But how significant is that?

I'm all for "the science", but there's so much visible vested interest that I want details. What are the tradeoffs? How does the drop in distance change R0, the reproduction number? The WHO recommends one meter - but it assumes that people are wearing masks - which, in London, on public transport they will be but in restaurants they can't be.

Finally, when last seen, the UK's contact tracing app was being trialed on the Isle of Wight and was built in-house using a centralized design despite the best efforts of privacy advocates and digital rights activists to convince NHSx it was a bad idea. Yesterday, this app was officially discarded.

The relevant scientific aspect, however, is how much apps matter. In April, an an Oxford study suggested that 60% of the population would have use the app for it to be effective.

We should have read the study, as MIT Technology Review did this week to find that it actually says contact tracing apps can be helpful at much lower levels of takeup. It is still clear that human tracers with local knowledge are more effective and there are many failings in the tracing system, as the kibitzing scientific group Independent SAGE says, but *some* help is better than no help.

"The science" unfortunately can't offer us what we really want: certainty. Instead, we have many imperfect but complementary tools and must hope they add up to something like enough. The science will only become fully clear much later.

Illustrations: London's Paddington station on June 13.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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